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September 18, 2014 / Congau

Is the “Islamic State” Really a Terrorist Organization?

The basic premise for an intervention in Iraq is that the “Islamic State” is a terrorist organization. Is it really? That depends on our definition of terrorism. Do we understand it in a narrow or in a broader sense. The narrowest definition, one that maybe even the terrorists themselves would agree on, could possibly sound like this: “Terrorism is the act of killing people randomly with the main objective of inciting fear in society.” That should qualify al-Qaida as a terrorist organization, 9/11 being the prime example of such an act. What then about the IS?

The IS has certainly committed atrocities on its way to conquering a huge area in Iraq and Syria, but that alone cannot qualify as terrorism according to the narrow definition. Atrocities always happen in wars, it’s just a matter of degree. The aim of any army in action is to gain or keep control over a territory by use of violence, and in that process terrible things will inevitably happen. If the army, especially an advancing army, is sufficiently ruthless, it will not make an effort to reduce the number of atrocities. But still, those acts will be bi-products and not the main objective of the war.

Even if the IS doesn’t refrain from proving its power by using excessive violence to scare people on its way, its goal is obviously to conquer territory. It uses violence, as does any army, as a direct strategic move to control an area, and that as such doesn’t qualify as terrorism. For al-Qaida on the other hand, the violence is not to be regarded as strategic moves on the board. 9/11, for example, was not an attempt to conquer ground in the United States. (And as such it wasn’t really an attack on America). It was solely done to create fear and that alone is the essence of terrorism. (“Terror” being synonymous with “fear”)

One relevant question to be asked about the IS, is whether it has links to al-Qaida or whether it is planning terrorist actions itself (violent actions without any strategic value). Previously it was reported that the IS was associated with al-Qaida, but now the connection appears to be less clear.

Be as it may, at the moment the IS is fighting a regular war and doesn’t seem to be engaged in terrorism proper. In fact the only thing that is clear about the IS, is that it is an army fighting to control territory in Iraq and Syria. We cannot fully know what kind of people this army consists of. Given its sudden appearance and strength, it is probably an alliance of diverse Sunni groups, including the secular Baath party. Their only common denominator may just be the wish to gain (or re-gain) Sunni domination over the land. Their claim to the land may be unjust and their advance may be ruthless, but that in itself doesn’t make it a terrorist organization.

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